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Should you eat it or toss it? Cracking the code of food expiration dates

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soup cans with printed experation dates on the bottom
David Martin Davies
Soup cans with printed expiration dates on the bottom

Printed on most processed food items in America is a date. We tend to think of this as an expiration date, and any can of beans or box of powdered mashed potatoes past that date is now an inedible threat to our health.

Actually, those dates aren’t so sacred or, in many cases, even meaningful. And in fact, food expiration dates are a major contributor to food waste in America. Food that otherwise is perfectly fine for consumption is tossed in the trash can. Not only does the consumer lose money with the loss of good food that they paid for, but there is a cost for the environment with the irrigation, farming, processing, transportation and storage of food that was never consumed.

A major part of this problem is customer confusion over what that date on the bottom of the can of ranch style beans really means.

In 2020, Americans wasted an estimated 40% of all food produced for human consumption. This is equivalent to 25% of the entire U.S. food supply, and it has a significant environmental impact. Food waste contributes to climate change, water pollution, and land degradation.

There are three main types of food expiration dates:

Sell-by: This date is used by retailers to determine when to remove a product from the shelf. It does not indicate whether the product is safe to eat after this date.

Use-by: This date is used by consumers to determine when a product is at its best quality. It is not a safety date, and food can still be safe to eat after this date.

Best if used by: This date is used by manufacturers to indicate when a product will taste its best. It is not a safety date, and food can still be safe to eat after this date.

The problem with food expiration dates is that they are often misunderstood by consumers. Many people believe that food is unsafe to eat after the expiration date, even if it has been stored properly. This leads to a lot of perfectly good food being thrown away.

There are a number of things that can be done to reduce food waste, including:

  • Educating consumers about food expiration dates. Consumers need to understand that food is often safe to eat after the expiration date.
  • Improving food storage practices. Food can be stored properly to extend its shelf life.
  • Donating food that is still safe to eat. Food that is close to its expiration date can be donated to food banks or other organizations that help feed people in need.


Dana Gunders serves as ReFED’s Executive Director. She is a national expert on food waste and one of the first to bring to light just how much food is lost throughout the food system. For almost a decade, she was a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council; she then launched Next Course, LLC to strategically advise on food waste. Some of her career highlights include authoring the landmark Wasted report and Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, launching the "Save the Food" campaign with the Ad Council, testifying in Congress, consulting to Google, being named "the woman who started the waste-free movement" by Consumer Reports, and serving as a founding Board Member of ReFED.

"The Source" is a live call-in program airing Mondays through Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. Leave a message before the program at (210) 615-8982. During the live show, call 833-877-8255 or email thesource@tpr.org.

*This interview will be recorded on Tuesday, June 6.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi